At What Point Do You Assume A Great Fare Will Be Honored By The Airline?

Filed Under: Advice

We’ve seen a lot of airline mistake fares lately, or at least fares that some seem to interpret as mistake fares. Some of them have been honored, like Qatar Airways’ incredibly cheap roundtrip business class tickets from Vietnam to just about everywhere. Some of them haven’t been honored, like Air France’s first class tickets from Los Angeles to London for ~$1,500 roundtrip.

A couple of recent “fares” that left me confused

Then there are all kinds of fares and opportunities that are in a grey area. For example, earlier this year I booked roundtrip business class tickets from Mexico City to Easter Island for ~$1,150 roundtrip in business class. I’m still not sure if this was a mistake or not. That’s outrageously cheap for 30 hours of flying in business class, but it wasn’t so cheap that it was an obvious mistake. When I booked I assumed with (near) certainty that it would be honored, and it was. I’d be curious to hear if others think that was a mistake fare or not.

On the other end of the spectrum, recently Swiss made first class award seats available to partner airlines. I usually have a pretty good sense of when airlines will honor things and when they won’t, and when I first booked this I assumed it was a near sure bet that this would be honored. For a moment I even wondered whether Swiss was going back to their old policy of making first class award seats available to partner airlines. I also assumed it would be honored since they’ve made space available to partner airlines for limited periods several times before, and never canceled tickets. I was genuinely surprised when they decided not to honor.

What about the recent Emirates first class tickets?

Reader Mark just asked the following question on a post:

@Ben – sorry this is unrelated to this post, but at what point would you consider the EK first class flights a sure thing? My plat amex card just showed the charges (not pending). Just want to get a good fare locked in for LA-YVR!

I think this is an interesting topic to address to show just how slippery of a slope this can be. Recently Emirates had a first class fare sale between Toronto and many points in the world, which I thought was completely legitimate. For example, you could book flights from Toronto to Chennai for ~$3,800 roundtrip in first class. That doesn’t seem like a mistake to me, especially since Emirates’ loads in A380 first class aren’t especially good.

But then the fare got better. There was a roundtrip first class fare from Toronto to Milan via Dubai for ~$2,900 per person, which is an amazing fare.

And then it got even better than that. You could originate in Vancouver and route via most US gateways, and fly Emirates first class to Milan for about the same cost. For example, you could fly from Vancouver to Los Angeles to Dubai to Milan and back for ~$3,100, and earn around 100,000 Alaska miles for such a ticket. This is an insane deal, and I’m not sure exactly what happened.

Was this a mistake fare? I don’t think so. The airline seemed to be running a legitimate first class fare sale. Then the fares out of the same city dropped even further. Then we realized there were some opportunities to get even more lucrative routings.

I booked these flights, and as soon as I had them locked in was going to book positioning flights out of Milan to get to where I really want to go. Before I did that, I said to myself “maybe I should wait a few days just to make sure this wasn’t a mistake.”

I didn’t think Emirates had any grounds to cancel these tickets, and for that matter I would be willing to bet that this is actually RASM positive for them (which is to say that they’re making money on these fares, since Emirates first class is rarely full). But at the same time, airlines have set odd precedents lately when it comes to this stuff. Some airlines have decided to cancel attractive business & first class fares two weeks after booking, which is awful, in my opinion.

To get back to Mark’s question, I have a hard time recommending when it’s safe to book positioning flights or assume a fare will be honored anymore. Until 2015, the DOT required airlines to honor “mistake fares.” Then I feel like for a year we didn’t see many mistake fares, and then this year we’ve seen a ton of them, and airlines have responded in all kinds of ways.

Some have honored without communicating, some have canceled right away, some have canceled two weeks later, some canceled and then reversed course, etc. So I no longer feel comfortable saying “yes, you’re 100% safe, book your positioning flights.”

Personally I think Emirates will honor these fares. Personally I’d feel comfortable booking positioning flights. But am I 100% sure that in 1-2 weeks they won’t just unilaterally cancel tickets? Nope, especially based on the precedent we’ve seen lately. As I said above, I genuinely thought that Swiss would honor their recent first class award tickets, given that precedent suggested they would. I was wrong.

I’m curious to hear what those of you think who always say “you should have known this was a mistake.” Do you think Emirates’ great first class fares were mistake fares? Do you think it’s safe to assume these fares will be honored? At what point is it safe to book positioning flights?

  1. So what makes a fare a mistake? The $1500 by Air France or the $3000 by Emirates is much lower than normal but not much difference than what we see retailers discounting during black friday or during their big promotions, I say the rules must change to allowing airlines no more cancelling. They did publish the fare, they kept it for several hours, why allow them out of their contract with the passenger? I did book with Air France on Tuesday, on Wednesday I was going to book the Emirates option but decided NOT to since I already had Air France, today Air France cancel my ticket now I have nothing, How is that OK?

  2. I’v said it before & I’ll say it again .. when a carrier publishes a fare, it’s an invitation to you the customer to take it or not. Remember, the customer has absolutely no input into pricing at any airline

    So, if you accept the invitation, it should be honoured every single time, and if it’s not .. then Governments should impose hefty fines on airlines

    If airlines were forced to honour these fares, I can guarantee you … we would see very very few “mistake fares” ever

  3. We’ve seen so many historically low fares the last several years that if airlines retroactively get to decide what fares they want to “honor”, this creates a slippery slope.

    It’s well documented that if we make a mistake on our purchase we are paying to fix that. The airlines have much more leverage over us customers.

    DOT needs to make sure airlines aren’t pushing the limits on low fares only to back track when they feel they can sell for more.

  4. Thanks to DoT, u can never assume any fares will be honored, much less “good fares”.

    Why? Because DoT allowed airlines to do so. The big boys, after crying foul for years, are now back to their bullying best.

    Suck it up. This is what happens when you pity the bullies, and hand total power back to them.

  5. So at $3200 a pop this was by no means a cheap fare. While the routing above is not straight forward, this has nothing to do with the fare level. These routings are allowed on any fare ex-YVR as per the fare rule. The fare levels to other cities like MAA and JNB were well above $4000-$4500 so again quite high but reasonable for discounted first class. Additionally this wasn’t one random orign and destination but several from Canada and to many different regions ex-DXB. So this was a legit sale, EK will honor tickets, but I’d wait till after the NY to make concrete plans around the flights.

  6. I don’t think they will care about cancelling tickets from cheap ass customers who wouldn’t pay the prices the airline expects…

  7. Sucks to be in America right now. But at least we will find all of Hillarys missing emails now. We are very close. I know it.

  8. I agree with you. I don’t think this was a mistake. There are several reasons I think this is different from the Air France situation. First, there is a difference between $1500 and $3100. While I agree there cannot be a hard line drawn somewhere, I think it’s safe to say $1500 is exponentially more likely to be a mistake. Second, the AF fare originated in the US, whereas this EK fare originated in Canada. I think that’s a huge factor because fares tend to be much less expensive when originating in foreign countries—and then couple that with the relatively weak Canadian dollar. A few years ago, when the CAD was on par with the USD, I would bet a $4000+ F fare would have been less attractive to those of us based south of the border. Finally, there is precedence for F fares in this range. Cf. the PEN-YVR or SEL fares from last year.

    Finally, in terms of booking positioning flights, these had a 45-day advanced purchase requirement, as far as I know, so none of us are flying until at least Feb. I am not flying until much later, so I am going to wait to book positioning flights. But if I did want to lock in something now, I might book WN up to SEA.

  9. Nearly all of my flights are for business so I’m not well positioned to take advantage of these miracle fares given that I am locked into destinations and time frames. Although I’ve seen “discounted” J fares ranging from $3900 to a low of $2464 on the same flight for the same date, I’ve never been able to time a purchase to take advantage of the super low fares. But worse, I’ve never been able to ascertain whether the low fares were a mistake or were honored as they were only published for a day before returning to a previous high. Can one assume that if a fare disappears after only a day, it was a “mistake.”

  10. The airlines, because of the Obama administration, can claim any fare is a mistake- and they will. Watch. They will cancel fares months latter.

  11. I booked 3 tickets on Air France through Orbitz Tuesday morning. Air France cancelled them yesterday (Friday) afternoon. I called Orbitz and complained. They called Air France and by the end of the evening they were reinstated. Same date, time and flights. Will see how this plays out, but as of now, I have 3 valid F tickets on Air France again.

  12. I really wish the 24 hour cancellation window was the standard for both carrier and passenger. I’m in on the Emirates deal. I will wait until early January to make a move on positioning flights.

  13. How did you book this ticket from Canada to Europe with Emirates??? When I try that it doesn’t show any option between any city in Canada and any city in Europe

  14. “For example, you could book flights from Toronto to Chennai for ~$3,800 roundtrip in first class. That doesn’t seem like a mistake to me, especially since Emirates’ loads in A380 first class aren’t especially good.”

    By that admission, yeah, it’s not a mistake. That’s why you posted this article for some hits knowing it won’t be cancelled anyway.

  15. It will be honoured if it doesnt hit the blogs or goes public. Its that simple.

    There have been <$200 longhaul J/F fares honored in the past 2 years. Why? Because maybe a 100 people bought tickets, instead of thousands.

    You are looking at it from the wrong angle. Its not the price of the ticket that causes the airlines not honoring it – its the volume.

  16. I myself am going to wait a good month to make hotel bookings and other flights. Considering the route I’m flying, the conventional ticket prices from LAX-DXB on Emirates F, round trip are somewhere about $26,000, and I just got the same route (with some maneuvering, have to take a flight to YVR to kick off the trip, a one way to YVR was $79 last time I looked for my dates) for $3,200, that’s like 15% of the usual insane price.

  17. Doubt the EK fare is an error fare. The last fare out of Canada that was that was an error fare and didn’t get cancelled was the epic ANA J ticket to Sydney which was never cancelled.

    Like already mentioned above the EK fare wasn’t exactly cheap, for Canadian’s the cheapest fare worked out to around $4,000PP. And as Lucky mentioned, the first class cabin is usually empty especially on the DXB-MXP route so if you can get revenue and fill the seats why not.

    I also read on FT that someone used a TA to call EK to book the EK deal and a lot people have been already been issued seats on their WN leg so doubt this was an error fare. If they decided to cancel say a month from now the mess this would create for EK would be massive.

  18. The airline determines what is a “mistake”. Only they can. This means they can cancel out of a contract of carriage at any time. I don’t think the DOT ruling would stand up in court. We need someone to challenge it.
    The airlines are also free to change the product they provide for a given class of service after you have purchased it, with no right to refund. I also think this must violate a consumer law somewhere.

  19. I agree. If a fare is advertised somewhere like this blog it is much less likely to be honoured because of the volume.

    But it might be worth looking at the jurisdictions in which tickets can be purchased. Buying through a travel agent in a different country, with different rules/laws on cancellation, even “mistake” fares might be locked in.

  20. I think mistake fares or not, the airlines should have the right to the same leeway their customers do. We get 24 hours to renig on a ticket.,. And it’s fair that they get the same benefit (for whatever reason)… and nothing more.

  21. @Marc said:

    “While the routing above is not straight forward, this has nothing to do with the fare level. These routings are allowed on any fare ex-YVR as per the fare rule. […] So this was a legit sale, EK will honor tickets, but I’d wait till after the NY to make concrete plans around the flights.”

    And last year, AZ published an intra-europe J fare for some $800. Not a mistake to put that fare up. Except the fare rules allowed you to route it halfway around the world and back, turning it into very-longhaul J. And many of those were cancelled. So it’s not like we can depend on the fare rules either; who’s to say EK won’t turn around and say “yeah the fare was legitimate, but we didn’t MEAN for you to be able to route through MXP and DXB and whatnot”?

    The DOT rules leave a terrible amount of uncertainty. And you recognize this yourself: if it was a legit sale, why should the consumer EVER have to wait to book positioning flights?!

  22. @Lucky

    This is perhaps a rookie question (please have mercy fellow readers), however… with the Emirates itinerary originating in Canada, would our flights still be subject to the DOT rules regarding “mistake fares” or are they subject to a completely different set of regulations?

    If the “rules” vary from area to area regarding “mistake fares” this could make for a very interesting topic especially when you consider what a hot issue this has been lately. We need a guide on this!

    Thank you again for the deal alert, we couldn’t have got in on this one without you!

  23. Lucky, how many points will non status Alaska mileage members receive for EK YVR-MXP-DXB-MXP-YVR? I calculated around 75k…

  24. Deregulation is a win-lose situation. The winners are the big corporations and their lobbyists. The losers are you and me. Dont expect any help from the DOT in 2018

  25. I’d like to ask any lawyers out there to explain why airlines are exempt from the legal concept of a binding contract. If the seller offers X for $2,000 and the buyer agrees to pay $2,000 then it seems to me you have offer and acceptance. If that acceptance is a mirror image of the offer, and payment is tendered, why is there no duty for the airline to perform?

  26. @Mark—Because the validity of a contract depends on more than just an offer and an acceptance. For example, a contract can be voided on the grounds that it is unconscionable (either procedurally or substantively). There is also an implied covenant of good faith, at least under the common law tradition. Both of these are arguably implicated in the case of a “mistake” fare.

  27. Mark,

    I think the question is at which point there really is a contract.

    Technically when something is offered for sale it is an invitation to bid, and there is no assurance at that time that your bid will be accepted. Suppose for instance that they have 9 seats at that price and 10 people bid for them? Somebody is going to have a failed bid.

    Often these fares are only for a few seats on a plane. Then sites like this come along and tell the world about them, and you have 1,000 people bidding for 10 seats. And because of the many different outlets, it cannot be a strict first come; first served. Which means that a ticket you thought you had was in fact earmarked for somebody else.

    Back when I was a landlord I would offer a housing unit at $XXX, but if many people applied for it, I would withdraw the unit from the market, raise the asking rent, and then offer it again. Price discovery.

  28. The 24 hour rule is only in the US, in Europe once you bought a ticket it is non – refundable (except for refundable tickets of course) . Even if you call one minute later after booking.. they ask you to pay ridiculous fees or buy a new ticket. So in my opinion, every airline that has a mistake fare, has to honor it. Even if it is an F ticket for 1$ or 1000$.

  29. Simply put, I assume that if the airline advertises it on their own website, then it should be honored. It is their responsibility to ensure that what is published on their websites is correct. Now, I can see where a fare published on a third party site like Orbitz or Travelocity might not be honored if it wasn’t the airline that made the error. If Orbitz published a $1000 fare for $100 by mistake, then I could see where the airline might not honor the ticket. In fairness, they should once Orbitz compensated them for the difference, thus making the traveler whole. I doubt that would happen, but that’s what should occur. The bottom line is that the innocent traveler shouldn’t be victimized by a company’s error.

  30. I said it after the AF tickets for pulled and I’ll say it again: we can all thank TPG for the loss of the mistake fare (and the coupled swing of the pendulum from consumers to airlines that was done in the process). Personally I think there ought to be some time limit (like 48 hours) after which the airline can’t back out, and there should also be a significantly low ratio of the “mistake” fare to the correct fare. So, for example, if you paid $1000 for the ticket, the correct price needs to be at least $5000 (or even $10,000). This way the airline can’t just decide to call your fare a “mistake” because they figure they could have sold the same ticket for more money. Just my 2c.

  31. I have been looking on Emirates for the last few days going from Toronto – Dubai-Milan- Dubai- Milan- Toronto and each time the fare is 42,000+ cad.

  32. @Lucky Hi Lucky, under my reservation, the Class/Fare section says “First Saver”. Do you know how would Alaska accrue this?

    Alaska’s website specifies miles for Emirates’ First Class “F, A, P”, but based on what I read on, “A,P” are First Flex, while “F” is First Flex Plus…

  33. Moving the decimal point two places to the left (i.e. asking of 1% of intended price) is understandable as a typing mistake, and obviously so to consumers.
    When the supermarkets do this online, they cancel the orders which is fair enough.
    Even one place (10% of intended price).
    But 25% or more of intended/normal price is not a typing mistake – it may be a commercial error, but that should be the company’s problem, not the consumer’s.

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